Part I: What is my understanding of the church and its mission?
I tell stories in order to make sense of life. That’s also the impetus behind all scripture. I’d like to believe in a personal God, a God who cares about me as an individual or even as a member of humanity. I envy evangelicals and Pentacostals their experience of a relationship with an outside force interested in their well-being. My experience has been what Keith Russell describes as the Peterine, a home for the homeless. It often seems there’s no one home but there’s the need for a home. The God I’ve experienced displays little sympathy for the poor and oppressed and helpless, doling out greater and harsher conditions on them, while offering people like me better and warmer conditions than we deserve. Such a God shruggingly kills and disappears nearly a thousand people in the aftermath of a typhoon inthe Philippines while caring enough to shift the course of a tropical storm to avoid a political gatheringin Tampa.
What’s the purpose of worship for such a God? Is it to placate, to ameliorate God’s anger? It might seem so if the only reason people got together was to celebrate such a God. But it’s obvious this God doesn’t take comfort from the worship of people in one of the most religious regions, southeast Asia, or the power of prayer would have had a greater effect on Typhoon Bopha. “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering,” the Psalmist tells us. “’The multitude of your sacrifices--what are they to me?…I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats,’” exclaims the Isaiah writer.
The purpose of church, in my experience, is to provide an indwelling for comfort and succor to people by people. “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing... [Who] will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed,” the writer of 1st Peter tells us. While I may not recognize a personal God, one that’s got anyone’s interests at heart, I see plenty to indicate a force that binds us together. It is a connective spiritual tissue that, like a holy game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” provides a conduit for nurturing the spark that brings me in greater relation with you.
When I came to United Seminary, and for most of the time I’ve been here, it’s been with the intention that I would serve a congregation that practiced that ideal, one where the Peterine work of being a home to the homeless was the reason to get together each week. After all, I had already served as pastor to several congregations where, while everyone knew it was hard work to bring about what Unitarian Universalists call the Beloved Community, they also knew it would be ultimately rewarding and where, while most refused making the difficult changes that we knew could result in what we wanted, they nonetheless paid lip service at least to the need for those changes. My intent was that if I kept at them, they would make the changes. Incrementally.
But as I’ve been here and as I’ve studied and watched the changes in congregationallife, not only in my own faith but in other faiths, I’ve come to realize this: It is too late for those changes to make a difference. Of course, congregations aren’t going away in the immediate future—and in the long run, something like what we’ve come in the past couple centuries to see as the common experience of communal gathering will remain in some form—but they are dying as swiftly as their eldest members. This isn’t a bad thing. Like Spanish becoming the most-spoken language in the
or the surge of minorities eventually overtaking white people as the dominant
Americans, it is simply how things are. US
But a question I asked several weeks into this class and based on our study of DianaButler Bass’ Christianity After Religion has stuck with me: As churches are changing, as congregations become less “religious” and more “spiritual,” require fewer experts and authorities to imbue what rituals remain with holiness, what reason will they have to hire ministers? After all, if it’s true, as Butler Bass articulates, that “Everyone is in the same situation: a religious bear market. Indeed, the first decade of the twenty-first century could rightly be called the Great Religious Recession,” then is it any wonder seminaries find themselves in terrible fiscal straits and mainline, otherwise well-to-do denominations must ask their executives toresign if the money just isn’t coming in? My faith has retained a lot of its Christian roots, including its predilection for ministers, but many Unitarian Universalist congregations are proudly independent of regular ministerial oversight, and while there remains the assumption that a congregation that chooses to call a full-time minister has made it, many staunchly refuse to or at best look for someone part-time.
I’ve had two previous professional horses shot out from under me—first as a bookseller and then as a professor—and don’t look forward, in my early 50s, to having it done a third time. There’s the money aspect, of course, but there’s also the sense of being a part of something larger and greater than myself, which is why I choose to serve in the first place. I’ve studied this situation a lot—I’ve even written sermons about it—and none of the answers I can come up with suggest the long-term fiscal viability of parish work. It’s for this reason I’ve chosen to seek another option.